Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Why We Grind

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 21, 2006

While I was browsing Joystiq a few days ago, I was directed to a few interesting articles on the subject of Grinding. Liz Lawley defended the merits of repetitive but rewarding play, while Tom Coates failed to figure out why he still plays games that aren’t fun. This started me thinking about fun, The Grind, and human psychology. The simple explanation is to say that everyone who continues to play an unfun game has an addiction that needs to be cured. The real explanation is far more complex, and lies at the heart of why MMOs, and games in general, are so damn compelling in the first place.

First, I realized that there are essentially two sets of reasons I play and enjoy games. These are more clusters of associated causes than anything cut and dry, but there are important distinctions to be made. The first category is roughly labeled as “Experiential”. This is largely equivalent to the poorly defined concept of “fun” that we in the games industry pretend to understand. Raph Koster and others have various theories about what fun is, and here’s mine. In essence, fun is in the direct emotional reactions to games. The emotional content of a game’s story, art, and music feed into this, as do the endorphins resulting from physical and mental exertion. I also include the basic joy of socializing in this category. Communicating with others is so central to us as humans that it can be a very direct and important factor in creating fun. Aesthetic masterpieces like Rez or atmosphere-based adventures like Resident Evil embody this experiential fun.

The other category is a bit harder to pin down, but I’m going to call it “Rewards”. Here lie things like high scores, tournament standings, character level, and real money. Why do these motivate us to play games just as much as the more directly emotional causes? Real-world money is a good place to start, because making money makes me happy. You may think this is because with I can purchase things that will make me happier, but it’s not that simple. Once people get above a certain basic level, having more money does not make people any happier on average. However, gaining money ALWAYS makes me happier. What’s going on here? The secret is that having money doesn’t make me inherently happy, but GAINING it does. It turns out that gaining meaningless points makes me happy in the same way that gaining more useful money does. Games like Diablo 2 or Progress Quest exemplify this category.

But why does gaining arbitrary, meaningless things make us so happy? This is something that economists and psychologists have been studying for hundreds of years. Personally, I think the best explanation comes from Evolutionary Psychology. Basically, gaining useless things makes us happy for the same reason eating chocolate does: we’re wired that way. In the case of eating chocolate, there is a fairly direct link between the taste buds and the “happiness generator” in your brain. Modern neuroscience can mostly explain this, but the joy of acquisition is a bit more complicated. The basic theory embodied in our brains is that anything gained now will open up future opportunities for direct enjoyment. To encourage us to gain and accomplish things, we eventually learned to get some of that happiness up front. Recently, the kinds of things we strive to gain have changed. In today’s world, there is no psychological difference between “real” money and in-game money. They’re both abstract counters that can be exchanged for goods and services, and the emotional bits of our brain can’t know the difference.

One thing to remember is that the relative importances of Fun and Reward depend heavily on the individual player. Personally, games tend to bore me to death if they lack any compelling and immediate fun. On the other hand, many of my friends refuse to play games that aren’t competitive. In terms of genres, MMORPGs lean heavily towards reward. Everything you do is tracked, ranked, and rewarded. Single player RPGs share these features (ever grind to max level in a Final Fantasy game?), but MMORPGs up the ante by adding social elements. By living in a massive world with thousands of players you can constantly compare yourself to other players. The only thing better than gaining abstract rewards is gain more than someone else! This is why PvP in MMORPGs always devolves into ganking: the abstract reward of being better than someone else is perceived to be greater than the fun of a close and fair fight. This finally brings us to a definition of grinding: it’s when players repeatedly perform a somewhat painful action in order to acquire an abstract reward.

To draw some sort of conclusion from all this, the secret to a compelling game is to balance experiential fun and rewards. If a game is fun but has a shallow reward structure, it will only be compelling for a few months at most. If a game is not fun but has expertly crafted rewards, it will never get enough casual players to achieve mainstream success. In my opinion, City of Heroes is lacking in compelling rewards (we’re working on it), and the Everquest series is lacking in fun. World of Warcraft seems to hit the best mix of the two, and that is why it’s been so annoyingly successful. In the early levels, things are fun because of exploration, combat, and socializing. At the high levels, the game shifts to a heavy focus on high-investment raids and epic rewards. The mix of players complement each other, and provide an enjoyable experience for everyone on the spectrum from fun to grind. I’m not sure if this design was on purpose, but the rest of us can definitely learn from its success.

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